from Osip Mandelstam, “The Selected Poems,” translated by Clarence Brown and W.S. Mersin, New York Review of Books, 2004
Porosity of Being: Porosity is often taken to name a permeable boundary or open access between two (determinate) domains or things. We think of A or B as relatively firm, while between them is some more or less open border, one not absolutely closed to passage. But how to think “passage as passage”? One must speak of the medium in which passage occurs, but the medium is not a thing but a field in which things or passage eventuate. Porosity suggests a field of passage—itself a passing field, since it is not fixed or determinate. What if A and B are themselves marked by porosity? You could then have things and events, themselves porous, in a field or sea, itself a porosity. What passes would not pass as fixed in itself, but as itself passing: passing in passage as such. Here we might connect the porosity with creation: the passage is creative in a porosity that passes between nothing and (finite) being and between being and nothing again—-and this passing is renewed, again and again. Arising in being and setting, coming to be and passing out of being, creation brings to be the the porosity within whose intermedium all things live and move and have their being. How to get a fix on the porosity? There is no direct way, but it is revealed in human things like the child’s impressionability, the experience of being seen through, the blush, or the experience of music or prayer.
William Desmond, “The Intimate Universal,” p. 424.
Osip Mandelstam was born and raised in St. Petersburg. He was a leading experimental poet, known even today for his equivocal, and exquisite, sense of form. In 1934 he was arrested after reading an epigram mocking Stalin to friends. In May of 1938, while in exile, he was sentenced to five years in a labor camp. He died in the Gulag Archipelago in 1938.
“Pear blossom and cherry blossom aim at me” dates from the last years of his life. It is a superb example of the metaxical lyric that foregrounds not so much the “I” of the poet as the happening in which the I emerges only to be eclipsed by the porosity of its being.
This “Metaphysical” way of putting it makes perfect sense in light of the poem’s narrative. The frail flowers are relatively strong in light of the porosity of the poet. He experiences them as communicating directly with him in threatening ways. Mandelstam was a great student of Dante and Dante’s sense of the sovereignty of Love seems relevant here. The poet’s identity is in flux. The poem sheds light on the human condition as being one of passage.
The poet does not shrink from naming the mysterious one emerging from the description of the double powers, low and high, that frame his porous existence—“Stars in clusters of blossoms, leaves in stars”: it is truth. While throughout his poetry Mandelstam evoked ideals of human culture, he was not an idealist. Truth is ambiguous. It is double, of flower or strength. It dies in its happening. Everything is passage.
Creation brings the porosity into play even as it passes. The vigorous pungent blend of energies Mandelstam calls “the twin scent’s sweetness” is narrated in the final line in the terms of porosity. It’s a mixed bag, this truth, a fitting subject for the martyr poet.